What Obama's Speech Means for the Antiwar Movement

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While President Obama’s May 23 speech
did not signal a major change in the War on Terror, in addressing concerns
about human rights for the first time, the speech demonstrated the antiwar
movement’s growing power.    

This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.

A presidential war speech often doubles as a gauge of the antiwar movement’s
weakness or strength. This was borne out again last week when President Obama
delivered what the administration billed as a major
on the wars over which he is presiding. In his May 23 presentation
at the National Defense University,
the president proclaimed a fundamental shift in the wars since 9/11. In
reality, it was a carefully nuanced message that said as much about the growing
opposition to two aspects of his wars — drones and the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo Bay — as the prospect of an eventual end
to “endless war.”

For years the Obama administration did not see fit to comment publicly on
the growing drone fleet and its targeted killing program, which independent
research demonstrates has led to thousands
of deaths
. But the anti-drones movement has grown over the past year, with
more nonviolent action, civil disobedience, networking, and even a 13-hour
filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul. This growing awareness and opposition has
increasingly compelled the United
States government to shed some light on this
policy and to begin a public relations campaign to win hearts and minds for the
emerging drones culture.

At the same time, the renewed public focus on Guantánamo — unexpectedly
sparked by an ongoing hunger strike
being carried out by over 100 inmates — has pushed the administration to again
grapple with President Obama’s as-yet-unmet 2008 commitment to close the facility.
As details have emerged about the practice of force-feeding and the strike has
stretched past the 100-day milestone, solidarity fasts and nonviolent actions
across the United States
have stoked this growing movement. It is not a coincidence that both of these
matters were key features of the president’s presentation.

These policies were embedded in the larger focus of the speech — a suggested
end to the multi-pronged war that the United States has been prosecuting
since 2001. In a sharp rhetorical divergence from both the Bush administration
and his own, President Obama laid out the conviction that this war, like all
wars, must end. But instead of truly finishing this conflict, he proposed
indefinitely carrying on military operations, especially drone attacks,
designed to concentrate on what he termed the reduced but continuing terrorist

It is no accident that President Obama floated a vision of terminating this
conflict. After a dozen years of combat, public support for unending war has
waned, and the antiwar movement has steadily percolated. But this termination
Obama alluded to is illusory.

Relying incessantly on drone strikes and other means to kill whomever the U.S. government
decides are terrorists and their “associated forces” is endless war by other
means. The president’s speech was less about a real shift and more about
indefinitely extended hostilities framed in a way that normalizes and
institutionalizes them. Winning and consolidating public support for this
strategy is crucial for its success, which is why the speech raised, and then
blithely knocked down, the critic’s arguments. Drone attacks, the president
insisted, are effective, legal and subject to accountability. Here he referred,
with no sheepish irony, to a presidential document he had signed just the day
before — a text that has not been made public so that the rest of us can assess
how much accountability there will, in fact, be.

While briefly acknowledging that drone attacks kills civilians (“for me and
those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live”),
the president claimed that this is the least lethal option and that, in effect,
U.S. lives are ultimately more important than non-U.S. ones. He conceded in
passing that drone attacks risk creating new enemies and that the secrecy in
which they are shrouded could lead to authoritarian abuse by policymakers. But
as with most of these concerns, he briskly waved them away. “Doing nothing is
not an option,” he said at one point with simple finality.

He is right, of course — doing nothing is not an option. But “targeted
killing” or “doing nothing” are not our only alternatives. There are many more
effective and enduring solutions, but taking them on would require giving up
one’s faith in the power of dominating force and the narrow, dualistic view of
the world in which that faith is rooted.

For example, a RAND corporation study
that analyzed hundreds of terrorist groups found that 43 percent of them
“reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government.” In another
study, University
of Chicago professor
Robert Pape examined
every suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004 and concluded that 95 percent of which
were motivated by a desire to compel the withdrawal of military forces from
land the attackers saw as their homeland.

On May 23 the president said,
is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or
else it will define us.” He is speaking operationally — we have a choice of
tactics — but a deeper meaning lurks here. We stand at a crossroads, but it
does not simply represent a choice between the weapons we will wield. There is
a qualitative choice between fundamentally different paths: controlling the
world through fear, surveillance and the illusion of superiority, or risking
another course of nonviolent options and peacebuilding.

This is ultimately less about convincing policymakers directly than it is
about building movements that illuminate the options that exist. This is the
point that I made in 2009 in reflecting on
President Obama being awarded the Nobel peace prize
. This is why
presidential speeches are a barometer of the movement. When movements are
strong, it is more likely that just and peaceful alternatives will be
entertained — and can even make their way into a president’s vision. For
example, John Kennedy’s sudden decision in 1963 to back the Partial Test Ban
Treaty was influenced by the peace movement, while Lyndon Johnson’s swung his
support behind the landmark voting right’s bill in 1965 after the Civil Rights
movement’s march from Selma to Montgomery.

These are high stakes. We are being asked to sign on to an increasingly
militarized world that, like the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan,
will likely result in a tsunami of unintended consequences. But we have another
choice: nonviolent alternatives. In this regard we have no better example than
Medea Benjamin who sought
to engage the president
on both Guantánamo and drones during his May 23

Not only did Benjamin raise salient facts left out of or muted in the
president’s presentation, such as the fact that as commander-in-chief he does
not have to wait for congressional action to close Guantánamo or that one of
his drones strikes had killed a 16-year-old U.S. citizen. Then, only a few
hours later, she was part of a national strategy conference call plotting
nonviolent action in support of the Guantánamo hunger strikers. They began to
organize a June civil disobedience action featuring people in orange jumpsuits
and black hoods representing the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release
but are still being held, a delegation to Guantánamo and an effort to meet with
the president about closing Guantánamo immediately.

Nonviolent actions, campaigns and movements open space and possibilities
that previously seemed far-fetched and unlikely. The president’s speech may
represent a tactical change, but the real turning point will come as a result
of the growing momentum of a movement that dramatically pools its people-power
for both clear skies and human rights.

Image by the U.S. Navy, licensed
under Creative

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